As the season winds down, it is becoming more and more evident that the 2022 Southern Conference football title is going to get even more interesting as we head into the final five weeks of the 2022 regular-season. If Saturday’s games proved anything, it proved that no lead is safe and that at the top level of this league, there are some pretty good football teams.
The SoCon has been balanced. With three of the nation’s top 10 running backs, and a Walter Payton Award candidates at both quarterback and wide receiver, the final five weeks of the season will be worth watching for plenty of reasons.
SoCon offenses go crazy in week seven
Up until the advent of the spread craze offense in college football, which hit the SoCon about the same time Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards suited up for his first-career start against Mars Hill in 2006, the SoCon was known as a run-first, run-second-and run-third lead up until that point.
That’s not particularly surprising, with most of the teams running some version of option offense, and it was a rare thing to encounter a true west coast style or run-and-shoot offense outside the say Pete Lembo’s Elon Phoenix or whatever the offense Dennis Wagner ran at Western Carolina was called during the day.
There were those odd years…Like when Donnie Kirkpatrick was in charge at Chattanooga when all that seemed to matter was how many passes a QB could actually get off per game before having to ice the arm. Ah…the early 2000s in the SoCon were somewhat bizarre.
In 2022, the SoCon is made up of more diversity in terms of different styles of offense than ever before. It’s perhaps why Drew Cronic’s offense is so tough to stop in Macon, GA. It seems like Mercer is running some version of every successful offensive scheme that has been present in the SoCon at some point over the past two decades plus.
Elements of the Kirkpatrick and Lembo run-and-shoot, mixed with some Samford and Georgia Southern Hatch Attack, some Clay Hendrix option principles, as well as one-back and two-back sets, and maybe even a play or two that would resemble the tremendous offensive schemes implemented by Scott Wachenheim during his time at VMI.
All that to say two things. Mercer is a nightmare to defend, but even more fun to watch. That said, let’s get to the big numbers put up in week seven offensively. One glance at any stats sheet of any of the four games around the SoCon this past weekend, it was easy to find SoCon standout performers.
In arguably the game of the week for the Southern Conference, the Bears continued to roll up yards and points, posting a 55-33 win over defending Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State. Quarterback Fred Payton continued to be a leading candidate for the Walter Payton Award, as threw for five touchdowns and 383 yards, as well as his first INT of the season.
He helped the Bears post another outstanding offensive afternoon, as the Bears rolled up 577 yards of total offense, out-gaining the Bucs 577-316 in total offense. All told, Payton connected on 23-of-35 passes for his 383 yards, 5 TDs and one INT. To this point in the 2022 season, Payton ranks seventh nationally in passing yards (1,816) and fourth in touchdown passes (21).
If Payton has been lighting up the friendly skies throwing the football, that means he’s had some targets among his receivers also putting up big numbers this season. Both Ty James and Devron Harper were up to their old tricks against the Bucs again on Saturday in the 22-point win. James ended up hauling in seven passes for 120 yards and a pair of scores, while Harper hauled in eight passes for 59 yards, but did not haul in a scoring pass from Payton in Saturday evening’s win.
For the season, both James and Harper continue to rank among the nation’s best receivers. James, who transferred to Mercer from the University of Georgia a couple of years ago, continued his monster season, as he now has 27 catches for 577 yards and seven scoring receptions this season. He’s averaging 21.4 YPR through the first seven games for the Bears.
Harper has been another lethal downfield threat for Payton to throw to this season, and though he has been most dangerous as a receiver, did not haul in a scoring pass in Saturday’s win over ETSU. But he’s had plenty of his own success hauling in passes for the Bears this season, as he has caught 40 passes for 507 yards, with eight TDs (12.7 YPR).
In Mercer’s win, given the offensive fireworks, it probably gets lost that the Bears defense held a potentially explosive Bucs offense at bay most of the night. That included keeping the SoCon’s preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors, who came into the contest as the nation’s leading rusher with 743 yards and nine rushing scores entering the game.
By the end of Saturday’s game in Macon, though Saylors ended with a pair of rushing scores, the Mercer defense limited Saylors to just 25 yards on 16 rush attempts. That computes to an average of 1.6 YPC. Saylors’ 768 yards rushing and 11 TDs through his first seven games this season still ranks third nationally in rushing.
The Bears are now off to a 6-1 start overall, which includes a 4-0 start in league play heading into a monumental clash at Chattanooga next Saturday in a battle of the SoCon’s unbeatens. Defending SoCon champion ETSU dropped to 3-4 overall and 1-4 in SoCon play. The Bucs will be at home to host No. 13 Samford next Saturday at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium.
In Greenville, all kinds of crazy things went on. Furman’s defense allowed a school-record 691 yards of offense and nearly blew a 24-point fourth quarter lead. With Cole Gonzales in under center for an injured Carlos Davis, the Catamounts went to work on a record-setting day.
In the fourth quarter alone, the Catamounts needed only 15 plays to generate 247 yards of total offense, with 229 of those coming through the air. In all, the Catamounts scored the first points against the Paladins in the fourth quarter this season.
In fact, the Catamounts out-scored Furman, 20-3, as well as out-gaining Furman 247-70, including a 229-0 advantage through the air. The 691 yards of total offense by the Catamounts is the most total yards in a single game ever allowed by a Paladin defense, eclipsing the 672 surrendered in a 46-13 loss at LSU back in 2013. The 462 yards passing by the Catamounts Saturday marked the fourth-highest total for passing yards ever allowed by a Paladin defense.
Western Carolina quarterbacks combined to complete 30-of-44 passes for 462 yards with four TD passes and just one INT. Davis finished the contest by connecting on 18-of-27 passes for 209 yards, with a pair of TD passes and one INT. The 462 passing yards were the most by a Southern Conference team this season.
In addition to his 209 yards passing on the day, Davis also led the Western Carolina ground attack, posting 104 yards 11 rush attempts. Also adding to the ground yardage was TJ Jones, who rushed for 67 yards and a TD on 12 attempts, while Jaylynn Williams finished with 58 yards on 12 rush attempts.
Cole Gonzales came in the game to relieve an injured Davis in the third quarter and finished with a noteworthy performance in his young career, as the freshman signal-caller connected on 12-of-16 passes for 253 yards and a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes.
Censere Lee led the Catamounts in receiving, as he hauled in five passes for 164 yards and two scores, while All-SoCon wideout Raphael Williams was able to haul in 10 passes for 102 yards and a score. Rounding out the big-play receiving options for Western Carolina quarterbacks on Saturday was David White Jr., who caught two passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Lee was able to haul in TDs of 42 and 69 yards in the fourth quarter to make things especially interesting down the stretch, while White accounted for a 75-yard scoring catch in the second quarter.
Fortunately for Paladin fans, their offense had done just enough in the fourth quarter to set up what would prove to be some huge insurance points, with Ian Williams’ 37-yard fourth quarter field goal being just enough points to help the Paladins secure the 47-40 Southern Conference home win.
The Paladins near cataclysmic collapse in the fourth quarter nearly overshadowed what running back Dominic Roberto and the Paladin offense had done in the previous three. Roberto ran for 252 yards and a pair of scores on 25 carries, while also hauling in a 20-yard scoring pass in the game. The 252 rushing yards were the third most in school history and most rushing yards since Louis Ivory ripped off 301 yards in a 45-10 win over No. 1 Georgia Southern in 2000. Ivory went on to win the Walter Payton Award that season.
While I’m not ready to predict such heights to be achieved for Roberto of that lofty status this season, it is interesting to note that he has seemingly come alive rushing the football of late for the Paladins. He entered the contest against the Catamounts coming off a 133-yard, two TD performance in a 21-10 win at The Citadel last week. In Saturday’s win by the Paladins, Roberto averaged 10.1 YPC and powered a Paladin rushing offense that generated 426 yards—a season-high for rushing yards by a SoCon team—as the Paladins finished with 492 yards of total offense.
Over the past two weeks, Roberto has rushed for 385 yards and four TDs on 43 carries in the past two games. That’s an average of 8.9 YPC! Roberto has moved into the top 10 nationally in rushing, currently resting in ninth spot nationally. Through the first seven games for the Paladins this season, Roberto has rushed for 685 yards and seven TDs.
It marks the second-straight season the Catamount defense has seen a team and in particular, one player, run roughshod against it. In last season’s Blue Ridge Border Battle, ETSU’s Jacob Saylors rushed for a school-record 266 yards and three scores on 19 carries, averaging an astounding 14.0 YPC.
The win moved the Paladins to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in Southern Conference action. The Catamounts dropped to 3-4 overall and 1-3 in league play. Not to get lost in the offensive fireworks of the aforementioned matchups was that Wofford snapped two long losing streaks. The Terriers, who were under the direction of interim head coach Shawn Watson for a second-straight week following Josh Conklin’s resignation, dispatched in-state rival The Citadel, 31-16, in Spartanburg.
Wofford snapped a 16-game losing streak with the win, as well as a 15-game Southern Conference losing skid with the win over the Bulldogs. Jimmy Weirick once again shined for the Terrier offense, as he passed for 232 yards and three scores in leading the Terriers to the win. Though The Citadel held a 402-349 edge in total offense, the Terrier defense was able to hold the Bulldogs out of the end zones at Gibbs Stadium for most of the afternoon.
The game was tied 7-7 following a Cooper Wallace 56-yard scoring jaunt early in the second quarter. That’s when the Terriers broke the game open, scoring 24 unanswered points in the second and third quarters, respectively, to assume a 24-7 lead.
Weirick connected on 14-of-24 passes for 232 yards and three scores, with no INTs. The Citadel got a solid effort from former Wofford signal-caller Peyton Derrick, who completed 8-of-15 passes for 156 yards, with a TD and an INT.
The win saw the Terriers move to 1-6 overall and 1-3 in SoCon play, while the Bulldogs dropped to 1-5 overall and 1-3 in league action. Wofford will be off next week before hosting East Tennessee State for homecoming on Oct. 29. The Bulldogs will be on the road at Western Carolina next Saturday.
The final game of four in week seven of SoCon football saw No. 12 Chattanooga end what had become a two-game losing skid against VMI, downing the Keydets.
Not to be outdone with all the offense that went on in other games Saturday, the Mocs gashed the Keydet defense for 609 yards, which included 299 on the ground. The stout Chattanooga defense held VMI to minus-2 rushing yards on 28 rush attempts, and sacked VMI quarterback Collin Shannon six times en route to the win.
The 609 yards of total offense put up by the Mocs in Saturday’s win marked the ninth-highest single game output for total offense in school history. The Mocs offense produced a pair of 100-yard ground gainers in the contest, with Ailym Ford going for 172 yards and a score on 22 attempts, while Gino Appleberry rushed for 109 yards and two TDs on 12 attempts.
Preston Hutchinson continued to shine under center for the Mocs, connecting on 16-of-20 passes for 295 yards and two scores and did not throw an INT. The win improved the preseason SoCon favorite to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in league play, while VMI fell to 1-5 overall and 0-3 in league action. Chattanooga hosts Mercer in a game that has potential SoCon title and FCS playoff implications next Saturday at Finley Stadium, while VMI will host Furman in a 1:30 p.m. contest at Foster Stadium.
SoCon Power Rankings Following Week 7
1. Mercer-Bears have been downright dominant so far.
2. Chattanooga-Mocs enter Saturday’s clash with Bears well-rested.
3. Samford-The Bulldogs were off this past week, preparing for a big game at ETSU on Oct. 22
4. Furman—The Paladins will look to make it three-straight Saturday in Lexington, VA.
5. ETSU—Bucs played well for three quarters against the Bears.
6. Western Carolina—Catamounts look for a bounce back game against The Citadel on Saturday.
7. Wofford—Win one game and move up two spots. Nice work Terriers!
8. The Citadel—Bulldogs still struggling to score points and need answers Saturday in Cullowhee.
9. VMI—Keydets continuing to battle injury issues at quarterback and will look to resurrect season Saturday against a good Furman team.
More on the offense in the SoCon in 2022: Through the first seven weeks of the Southern Conference football season, there have been some huge offensive afternoons.
Western Carolina’s offense has been among the most potent in the nation, yet there remains one major anomaly with the Catamounts and that is that in two games this season, the Catamounts have posted only field goals, accounting for a pair of their Southern Conference losses this season.
The Catamounts scored only field goals in losses on the road in SoCon games at No. 11 Mercer (L, 6-49) and at No. Samford (L, 12-35), as both are among the SoCon’s unbeatens this season.
In a 77-21 win over Presbyterian during non-conference play, the Catamounts racked up a school-record 766 yards of total offense, while the 77 points tied a school record.
The 691 yards in the 47-40 loss at Furman this past Saturday were the most yards ever gained against a Paladin defense, while the 462 yards through the air were a Southern Conference season high for aerial yards.
Through the first seven games of the season, the Catamounts rank third in the nation in total offense, averaging 527.0 YPG. Western Carolina is one of four SoCon offenses ranked inside the Top 40 nationally for total offensive output through the first seven weeks of the season. Somewhat surprisingly, none of those teams ranked is Samford
In addition to ranking highly in total offense, the Catamounts also place fifth nationally in passing offense (341.9 YPG) and 18th in scoring offense (34.4 PPG).
While Western Carolina’s Bell-winning offense has been fun to watch, it’s been Mercer’s balance that has allowed it to become one of the most feared in FCS football, and a big reason why the Bears find themselves in a great position going forward towards the final four games of the season, offering prime opportunity at two program firsts–an FCS playoff bid and a Southern Conference regular-season title.
The Bears have done it both on the ground and through the air. Mercer enters Saturday’s SoCon showdown at No. 10 Chattanooga ranked 10th nationally in total offense (461.2 YPG) `as well as ranking sixth in scoring offense (41.0 PPG).
The Bears have scored lower than 40 points only once during Southern Conference play so far, which was a 17-0 win over The Citadel in their SoCon opener. The Bears sport an average margin of victory of 29.2 PPG. The past three have seen the Bears incrementally increase their scoring totals, as following the win over the Bulldogs to open Southern Conference play, the Bears have games in which they have scored 42, 49, and 55 Saturday against East Tennessee State.
Furman ranks as the SoCon’s third-best offense, and one that also ranks 23rd nationally in total offense (427.0 YPG), while also leading the SoCon and ranking 10th nationally in rushing offense (225.1 YPG). The Paladins also sport the nation’s 36th best scoring offense (30.0 PPG).
Furman’s improvement offensively has been a stark contrast to where the Paladins where they were last season. At the conclusion of the 2021 campaign, The Paladins averaged 24.3 PPG (76th in FCS) and 359.8 YPG (65th in FCS). The Paladins are averaging 68 more yards of total offense, six more points, and 41 more yards on the ground. `
Rounding out the offenses that rank in the FCS Top 40 is Chattanooga. The Mocs, which are more noted for their numbers defensively, have also picked up the pace offensively this season. In six games this season, the Mocs rank 38th nationally in total offense (399.5 PPG) and 39th scoring offense (29.2 PPG).
A Quick Glance at the Bears and Mocs:
Saturday’s game between No. 10 Chattanooga and No. 11 Mercer looks like it might be a doozie. The Mocs were the consensus preseason favorite to capture the 2022 league crown, while Mercer tied for second in the media poll and were selected to finish third by the league’s head coaches.
Mercer won a wild, 10-6, game last season in Macon that likely canceled any Mocs hopes of an FCS playoff appearance. Making Saturday’s game even more crucial is the fact that the Bears and Mocs both still have games against Furman and No. 13 Samford.
While we noted how good both teams have been offensively above, both Chattanooga and Mercer have been outstanding on the defensive side of the ball as well.
The Mocs and Bears rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the nation in total defense. Chattanooga is allowing just 285.8 YPG this season, while the Bears are surrendering just 291.0 YPG.
The Mocs also rank 10th nationally in scoring defense (15.6 PPG), while the Bears rank 12th nationally in points surrendered, giving up just 16.4 PPG.
Both Mercer quarterback Fred Payton and Chattanooga’s Preston Hutchinson have been a big reason why both have themselves with the opportunity to not only do big things in the SoCon this season, but both have real potential to make deep runs in the FCS postseason.
While Payton is on a short list of candidates to when the Walter Payton Award this season, Chattanooga’s Hutchinson has been outstanding as well. Through six games for the Mocs this season, Hutchinson has completed 92-of-147 passes for 1,317 yards, with eight scoring tosses and five INTs.
The Mocs have one of the nation’s best running backs, in Ailym Ford, who enters the clash at Finley Stadium slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday ranking eighth in the nation in rushing, having amassed 696 yards and seven TDs on 128 attempts. He is averaging 5.4 YPC. It will mark the second week in a row that the Bears have faced a Top 10 running back nationally.
Saturday’s clash will also mark the 33rd all-time clash between the two, and the ninth as SoCon members. The Mocs own the 20-11-1 all-time edge, however, the Bears own a 5-3 edge since Mercer joined the SoCon in 2014, including having won each of the past two meetings. The Mocs and Bears first met on the college football gridiron in 1909.
2021 Recap: Mercer 10, Chattanooga 6 (Nov. 13, 2021)
Chattanooga turned the ball over five times in its 10-6 loss to Mercer in Macon last season, dominating statistically, however, but were seemingly snake-bitten much of the afternoon. In addition to those five turnovers, the Mocs also missed three field goals.
The Bears had a bend-but-don’t break mentality much of the evening, which held the Mocs to just 285 yards and settled into the game following the Mocs’ opening drive of the game.
After a scoreless opening quarter of play, Chattanooga put together a 10-play, 70-yard drive early in the second quarter, which was capped by an Ailym Ford scoring run, and after the PAT was missed, the Mocs were out in front of the Bears, 6-0, with just under 11 minutes remaining in the opening half of play.
Just prior to the half, Mercer was able to take a one-point lead, when Drake Anderson was able to haul in a 4-yard scoring pass from Fred Payton Jr., which accounted for easily the Bears’ best scoring drive of the day. The 68-yard scoring drive needed 12 plays, taking 6:29 off the game clock.
The 68-yard drive by the Bears to take the lead for good would account for 41.7% of the Bears’ total of 171 yards of total offense for the entire game.